Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus
12 - 41
Caligula was the third emperor of Rome. At best, he was one of
the most autocratic of Rome's early emperors; at worst, one of
the most deranged.
was born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus in Antium (modern Anzio)
on Aug. 31, A.D. 12. His mother, Agrippina, was Emperor
Augustus's granddaughter, and his father, Germanicus, was
Emperor Tiberius's nephew, adopted son, and heir. Gaius was
brought up among the soldiers his father commanded on the Rhine.
His mother dressed him in the uniform of a Roman legionnaire,
and for this reason the soldiers called him Caligula ("Little
Boots"), the name by which he is commonly known.
In A.D. 19 Germanicus died. His death was mourned throughout the
empire because he was, by all accounts, an honourable and
courageous man. After his father's death Caligula lived in Rome,
first with his mother, then with Livia (Augustus's wife), and
then with his grandmother. Finally, in 32, he joined Tiberius in
his retirement on Capri.
By 33 those people with prior claims to the imperial position,
including Caligula's brother Drusus, had died, and Caligula was
next in line to succeed Tiberius. Caligula held public office in
31 and 33 but, apart from that brief experience, had no other
training for political life. His experience at Tiberius's court
seems largely to have been in the art of dissembling - hiding
what his biographer Suetonius calls Caligula's "natural cruelty
Tiberius died in 37, and Caligula was acclaimed emperor in
March. During the first months of his reign he distributed the
legacies left by Tiberius and Livia to the Roman people, and
after the austerity which Tiberius had practiced the games and
chariot races Caligula held were welcomed. He was respectful to
the Senate, adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus as his son and
heir, and recalled political exiles who had been banished during
the reigns of his predecessors.
But by the spring of 38 the character of Caligula's rule changed
drastically. An illness late in 37 seems to have seriously
affected his mind. Suetonius claims that, after the illness,
Caligula succumbed completely to the role of Oriental despot. In
all things he became arbitrary and cruel. He murdered, among
others, Tiberius Gemellus, humiliated the Senate, and spent
money recklessly. He revived treason trials so that he could
confiscate the property of the convicted. Caligula's
extravagances included building a temple to himself in Rome and
appointing his favourite horse as high priest.
Caligula spent the winter of 39/40 in Gaul and on the Rhine and
planned to invade Germany or Britain. His plans aroused some
patriotic fervour, but the project was abandoned.
After his return to Rome, Caligula lived in constant fear and
real danger of assassination. He was murdered by a tribune of
the Praetorian Guards on Jan. 24, 41. His fourth wife and his
daughter, who was his only child, were murdered at the same
Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (b. A.D. 12, d. A.D. 41,
emperor A.D. 37-41) represents a turning point in the early
history of the Principate. Unfortunately, his is the most poorly
documented reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The literary
sources for these four years are meager, frequently anecdotal,
and universally hostile.[] As a result, not only are many of
the events of the reign unclear, but Gaius himself appears more
as a caricature than a real person, a crazed megalomaniac given
to capricious cruelty and harebrained schemes. Although some
headway can be made in disentangling truth from embellishment,
the true character of the youthful emperor will forever elude
Gaius's Early Life and Reign
Gaius was born on 31 August, A.D. 12, probably at the Julio-Claudian
resort of Antium (modern Anzio), the third of six children born
to Augustus's adopted grandson, Germanicus, and Augustus's
granddaughter, Agrippina. As a baby he accompanied his parents
on military campaigns in the north and was shown to the troops
wearing a miniature soldier's outfit, including the hob-nailed
sandal called caliga, whence the nickname by which posterity
remembers him.His childhood was not a happy one, spent amid an
atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and murder. Instability
within the Julio-Claudian house, generated by uncertainty over
the succession, led to a series of personal tragedies. When his
father died under suspicious circumstances on 10 October A.D.
19, relations between his mother and his grand-uncle, the
emperor Tiberius, deteriorated irretrievably, and the adolescent
Gaius was sent to live first with his great-grandmother Livia in
A.D. 27 and then, following Livia's death two years later, with
his grandmother Antonia. Shortly before the fall of Tiberius's
Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, in A.D. 31 he was summoned to join
Tiberius at his villa on Capri, where he remained until his
accession in A.D. 37. In the interim, his two brothers and his
mother suffered demotion and, eventually, violent death.
Throughout these years, the only position of administrative
responsibility Gaius held was an honorary quaestorship in A.D.
When Tiberius died on 16 March A.D. 37, Gaius was in a perfect
position to assume power, despite the obstacle of Tiberius's
will, which named him and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus joint
heirs. (Gemellus's life was shortened considerably by this
bequest, since Gaius ordered him killed within a matter of
months.) Backed by the Praetorian Prefect Q. Sutorius Macro,
Gaius asserted his dominance. He had Tiberius's will declared
null and void on grounds of insanity, accepted the powers of the
Principate as conferred by the Senate, and entered Rome on 28
March amid scenes of wild rejoicing. His first acts were
generous in spirit: he paid Tiberius's bequests and gave a cash
bonus to the Praetorian Guard, the first recorded donativum to
troops in imperial history. He honoured his father and other
dead relatives and publicly destroyed Tiberius's personal
papers, which no doubt implicated many of the Roman elite in the
destruction of Gaius's immediate family. Finally, he recalled
exiles and reimbursed those wronged by the imperial tax system.
His popularity was immense. Yet within four years he lay in a
bloody heap in a palace corridor, murdered by officers of the
very guard entrusted to protect him. What went wrong?
The ancient sources are practically unanimous as to the cause of
Gaius's downfall: he was insane. The writers differ as to how
this condition came about, but all agree that after his good
start Gaius began to behave in an openly autocratic manner, even
a crazed one. Outlandish stories cluster about the raving
emperor, illustrating his excessive cruelty, immoral sexual
escapades, or disrespect toward tradition and the Senate. The
sources describe his incestuous relations with his sisters,
laughable military campaigns in the north, the building of a
pontoon bridge across the Bay at Baiae, and the plan to make his
horse a consul. Modern scholars have pored over these incidents
and come up with a variety of explanations: Gaius suffered from
an illness; he was misunderstood; he was corrupted by power; or,
accepting the ancient evidence, they conclude that he was mad.
However, appreciating the nature of the ancient sources is
crucial when approaching this issue. Their unanimous hostility
renders their testimony suspect, especially since Gaius's
reported behaviour fits remarkably well with that of the ancient
tyrant, a literary type enshrined in Greco-Roman tradition
centuries before his reign. Further, the only eye-witness
account of Gaius's behaviour, Philo's Embassy to Gaius, offers
little evidence of outright insanity, despite the antagonism of
the author, whom Gaius treated with the utmost disrespect.
Rather, he comes across as aloof, arrogant, egotistical, and
cuttingly witty -- but not insane. The best explanation both for
Gaius's behaviour and the subsequent hostility of the sources is
that he was an inexperienced young man thrust into a position of
unlimited power, the true nature of which had been carefully
disguised by its founder, Augustus. Gaius, however, saw through
the disguise and began to act accordingly. This, coupled with
his troubled upbringing and almost complete lack of tact led to
behaviour that struck his contemporaries as extreme, even
Gaius and the Empire
Gaius's reign is too short, and the surviving ancient accounts
too sensationalized, for any serious policies of his to be
discerned. During his reign, Mauretania was annexed and
reorganized into two provinces, Herod Agrippa was appointed to a
kingdom in Palestine, and severe riots took place in Alexandria
between Jews and Greeks. These events are largely overlooked in
the sources, since they offer slim pickings for sensational
stories of madness. [] Two other episodes, however, garner
greater attention: Gaius's military activities on the northern
frontier, and his vehement demand for divine honors. His
military activities are portrayed as ludicrous, with Gauls
dressed up as Germans at his triumph and Roman troops ordered to
collect sea-shells as "spoils of the sea." Modern scholars have
attempted to make sense of these events in various ways. The
most reasonable suggestion is that Gaius went north to earn
military glory and discovered there a nascent conspiracy under
the commander of the Upper German legions, Cn. Lentulus
Gaetulicus. The subsequent events are shrouded in uncertainty,
but it is known that Gaetulicus and Gaius's brother-in-law, M.
Aemilius Lepidus, were executed and Gaius's two surviving
sisters, implicated in the plot, suffered exile. Gaius's
enthusiasm for divine honors for himself and his favorite
sister, Drusilla (who died suddenly in A.D. 38 and was deified),
is presented in the sources as another clear sign of his
madness, but it may be no more than the young autocrat
tactlessly pushing the limits of the imperial cult, already
established under Augustus. Gaius's excess in this regard is
best illustrated by his order that a statue of him be erected in
the Temple at Jerusalem. Only the delaying tactics of the Syrian
governor, P. Petronius, and the intervention of Herod Agrippa
prevented riots and a potential uprising in Palestine.
Conspiracy and Assassination
The conspiracy that ended Gaius's life was hatched among the
officers of the Praetorian Guard, apparently for purely personal
reasons. It appears also to have had the support of some
senators and an imperial freedman. As with conspiracies in
general, there are suspicions that the plot was more broad-based
than the sources intimate, and it may even have enjoyed the
support of the next emperor Claudius, but these propositions are
not provable on available evidence. On 24 January A.D. 41 the
praetorian tribune Cassius Chaerea and other guardsmen caught
Gaius alone in a secluded palace corridor and cut him down. He
was 28 years old and had ruled three years and ten months.
Whatever damage Tiberius's later years had done to the carefully
crafted political edifice created by Augustus, Gaius multiplied
it a hundredfold. When he came to power in A.D. 37 Gaius had no
administrative experience beyond his honorary quaestorship, and
had spent an unhappy early life far from the public eye. He
appears, once in power, to have realized the boundless scope of
his authority and acted accordingly. For the elite, this
situation proved intolerable and ensured the blackening of
Caligula's name in the historical record they would dictate. The
sensational and hostile nature of that record, however, should
in no way trivialize Gaius's importance. His reign highlighted
an inherent weakness in the Augustan Principate, now openly
revealed for what it was -- a raw monarchy in which only the
self-discipline of the incumbent acted as a restraint on his
behavior. That the only means of retiring the wayward princeps
was murder marked another important revelation: Roman emperors
could not relinquish their powers without simultaneously
relinquishing their lives.
Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (Caligula) was the third son of
Germanicus (nephew of Tiberius) and Agrippina the elder and was
born at Antium in AD 12.
It was during his stay with his parents on the German frontier,
when he was between two and four, that his miniature versions of
military sandals (caligae), caused the soldiers to call him
Caligula, 'little sandal'. It was a nickname which remained with
him for the rest of his life.
When he was in his late teens his mother and elder brothers were
arrested and died horribly due to the plotting of the praetorian
prefect Sejanus. No doubt the horrendous demise of his closest
relatives must have had a profound effect on the young Caligula.
Attempting to rid himself of Gaius, Sejanus, under the belief
that he may be a potential successor, went too far and was alas
arrested and put to death by orders of emperor Tiberius in AD
31. In the same year Caligula was invested as a priest.
From AD 32 onwards he lived on the island of Capreae (Capri) in
the emperor's lush residence and was appointed joint heir with
Tiberius Gemellus, son of Drusus the younger. Though by that
time Tiberius was in old age and, with Gemellus still a child,
it was obvious that it would be Caligula who would truly inherit
the power for himself.
By AD 33 he was made quaestor, though was given no further
administrative training at all.
Caligula was very tall, with spindly legs and a thin neck. His
eyes and temples were sunken and his forehead broad and
glowering. His hair was thin and he was bald on top, though he
had a hairy body (during his reign it was a crime punishable by
death to look down on him as he passed by, or to mention a goat
in his presence).
There were rumours surrounding the death of Tiberius. It is very
likely that the 77 year-old emperor did simply die of old age.
But one account tells of how Tiberius was thought to have died.
Caligula drew the imperial signet ring from his finger and was
greeted as emperor by the crowd. Then however news reached the
would-be emperor that Tiberius had recovered and was requesting
food be brought to him. Caligula, terrified at any revenge by
the emperor returned from the dead, froze on the spot. But
Naevius Cordus Sertorius Macro, commander of the praetorians,
rushed inside and smothered Tiberius with a cushion, suffocating
In any case, with the support of Macro, Caligula was immediately
hailed as princeps ('first citizen') by the senate (AD 37). No
sooner did he get back to Rome the senate bestowed upon him all
the powers of imperial office, and - declaring Tiberius' will
invalid - the child Gemellus was not granted his claim to the
But it was above all the army which, very loyal to the house of
Germanicus, sought to see Caligula as sole ruler.
Caligula quietly dropped an initial request for the deification
of the deeply unpopular Tiberius.
All around there was much rejoicing at the investment of a new
emperor after the dark later years of his predecessor.
Caligula abolished Tiberius' gruesome treason trials, paid
generous bequests to the people of Rome and an especially
handsome bonus to the praetorian guard.
There is an amusing anecdote surrounding Caligula's accession to
the throne. For he had a pontoon bridge built leading across the
sea from Baiae to Puzzuoli; a stretch of water two and a half
miles long. The bridge was even covered with earth. With the
bridge in place, Caligula then, in the attire of a Thracian
gladiator, mounted a horse a rode across it. Once at one end, he
got off his horse and returned on a chariot drawn by two horses.
These crossings are said to have lasted for two days.
The historian Suetonius explains that this bizarre behaviour was
down to a prediction made by an astrologer called Trasyllus to
emperor Tiberius, that 'Caligula had no more chance of becoming
emperor than of crossing the bay of Baiae on horseback'.
Then, only six months later (October AD 37), Caligula fell very
ill. His popularity was such that his illness caused great
concern throughout the entire empire.
But, when Caligula recovered, he was no longer the same man.
Rome soon found itself living in a nightmare.
According to the historian Suetonius, Caligula since childhood
suffered from epilepsy, known in Roman times as the
'parliamentary disease', since it was regarded as an especially
bad omen if anyone had a fit while public business was being
conducted - Caligula's very distant cousin, Julius Caesar, also
suffered occasional attacks. This, or some other cause,
violently affected his mental state, and he became totally
irrational, with delusions not only of grandeur but also of
He now suffered from a chronic inability to sleep, managing only
few hours of sleep a night, and then suffering from horrendous
nightmares. Often he would wander through the palace waiting for
Caligula had four wives, three of them during his reign as
emperor and he was said to have committed incest with each of
his three sisters in turn.
In AD 38 Caligula put to death without trial his principal
supporter, the praetorian prefect Macro. The young Tiberius
Gemellus suffered the same fate.
Marcus Junius Silanus, the father of the first of Caligula's
wives was compelled to commit suicide.
Caligula became ever more unbalanced. Seeing the emperor
ordering an altar to be built to himself was worrying to Romans.
But to propose that statues of himself should be erected in
synagogues was more than merely worrying. Caligula's excesses
knew no bounds, and he introduced heavy taxation to help pay for
his personal expenditure. He also created a new tax on
prostitutes and is said to have opened a brothel in a wing of
the imperial palace.
All these occurrences naturally alarmed the senate. By now there
was no doubt that the emperor of the civilized world was in fact
a dangerous madman.
Confirming their worst fears, in AD 39 Caligula announced the
revival of the treason trials, the bloodthirsty trials which had
given an air of terror to the latter years of Tiberius' reign.
Caligula also kept his favourite racehorse, Incitatus, inside
the palace in a stable box of carved ivory, dressed in purple
blankets and collars of precious stones. Dinner guests were
invited to the palace in the horse's name. And the horse, too,
was invited to dine with the emperor. Caligula was even said to
have considered making the horse consul.
Rumours of disloyalty began to reach an ever more deranged
emperor. In the light of this a recently retired governor of
Pannonia was ordered to commit suicide.
Then Caligula considered plans to revive the expansionist
campaigns of his father Germanicus across the Rhine. But before
he left Rome he learnt that the army commander of Upper Germany,
Cnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, was conspiring to have him
In spite of this Caligula in September AD 39 set out for
Germany, accompanied by a strong detachment of the praetorian
guard and his sisters Julia Agrippina, Julia Livilla and Marcus
Aemilius Lepidus (widower of Caligula's dead sister Julia
Soon after he had arrived in Germany not only Gaetulicus but
also Lepidus were put to death. Julia Agrippina and Julia
Livilla were banished and their property seized by the emperor.
The following winter Caligula spent along the Rhine and in Gaul.
Neither his planned German campaign nor a proposed military
expedition to Britain ever took place. Though there are reports
of his soldiers being ordered to gather shells on the shore as
trophies for Caligula's 'conquest of the sea'.
Meanwhile, a terrified senate granted him all kind of honours
for his imaginary victories.
It comes as no surprise then that at least three further
conspiracies were soon launched against Caligula's life. Were
some foiled, then alas one succeeded.
Caligula's suspicion that his joint praetorian prefects, Marcus
Arrecinus Clemens and his unknown colleague, were planning his
assassination prompted them, in order to avoid their execution,
to join a part of senators in a plot.
The conspirators found a willing assassin in the praetorian
officer Cassius Chaerea, whom Caligula had openly mocked at
court for his effeminacy.
In 24 January AD 41 Cassius Chaerea, together with two military
colleagues fell upon the emperor in a corridor of his palace.
Some of his German personal guards rushed to his aid but came
too late. Several praetorians then swept through the palace
seeking to kill any surviving relatives. Caligula's fourth wife
Caesonia was stabbed to death, her baby daughter's skull smashed
against a wall.
The scene was truly a gruesome one, but it freed Rome from the
insane rule of a tyrant.
Caligula had been emperor for less than four years.
Gaius Caesar Germanicus (August 31, AD 12 - January 24, AD 41),
also known as Gaius Caesar or Caligula, was a Roman emperor born
in Antium (modern day Anzio) who reigned 37-41. Known for his
extremely extravagant, eccentric, and sometimes cruel despotism,
he was assassinated in 41 by several of his own guards.
He was the youngest son of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder.
His great-grandfather was Augustus, his great-uncle Tiberius and
his uncle Claudius. See Julio-Claudian Family Tree.
Gaius' life started out promising, as he was the son of
extremely famous parents. Germanicus was loved as Rome's most
beloved general and as Augustus' adopted grandson, which
cemented his connection to the Julian Clan. Agrippina was
Augustus' granddaughter and was the model for what the perfect
Roman woman should be. When he was two or three years of age,
Gaius became the mascot of his father's army. The soldiers were
amused whenever Agrippina put on a miniature soldier costume on
Gaius, and he was soon given his nickname "Caligula" (or
Caligulae), meaning "Little Boots" in Latin for the small boots
he wore that were part of his costume. He would end up hating
this name, but he also hated the name "Gaius".
In 14 AD, when news of Augustus' death made its way across the
Empire, the soldiers of Germanicus' camp almost started a
mutiny, opposing the rise of Tiberius because they wanted
Germanicus as Emperor. Germanicus sent Agrippina and Caligula
away from the mess that was soon to brew and tried to calm his
men down. The superstitious men became horrified at the prospect
of losing their mascot. They promised to be good and so Caligula
The new Emperor, Tiberius, made Germanicus his adopted son. But
Tiberius was not too fond of Germanicus; jealousy over
Germanicus' popularity may have been a factor. Either way,
Germanicus died on October 10, 19 AD. The relationship between
Tiberius and Agrippina didn't improve and Caligula, along with
his sisters, went to live with their great-grandmother, Livia
(widow of Augustus and mother of Tiberius) and then with their
grandmother Antonia when Livia died in 27 AD. Livia or Antonia
didn't have much time to watch Caligula, so the only comfort he
had was with his sisters. Stories have been told of Caligula
already beginning incest with his sisters (Agrippina the
Younger, Drusilla, and Julia Livilla) around this time.
Caligula's life was in constant danger. Tiberius' Praetorian
Prefect, Sejanus, was in power now, doing everything he could to
gain power over Tiberius. This wasn't too hard, as Sejanus had
control of Rome while Tiberius retired to the island of Capri.
Outrageous treason accusations floated around those closest to
the Emperor, including most of Caligula's family. His mother
Agrippina was banished to an island, where she starved herself.
His two oldest brothers, Nero and Drusus, also died. Drusus'
body was found locked in a dungeon with stuffing from his
mattress in his mouth to keep off the hunger. Before Sejanus
could kill Caligula, he was brought down and killed based on
information given to Tiberius by Antonia.
By this time Caligula was already in favor with Tiberius. He was
summoned to Capri to stay with Tiberius on one of the many
villas on the island. Rumors have it of extreme perversions
happening on Capri. Tiberius was without the people who managed
to keep him in line (Augustus, Livia, his brother Drusus....) so
he felt free to indulge in whatever perversions he wanted.
Whether this is true or not is hard to say. Unpopular Emperors
like Tiberius or Caligula rarely had the whole truth painted
about them, and rumors are common throughout ancient texts.
What Caligula did on Capri is hard to say as well. He was
extremely servile to Tiberius, acting nice to the old man who
had killed his family off. Suetonius says that at night Caligula
would turn around and inflict torture on slaves and watch bloody
gladiatorial games with glee. In 33 AD Tiberius gave Caligula
the position of honorary quaestorship.
On March 16, 37 Tiberius died and on March 18 the Roman Senate
annulled Tiberius' will and proclaimed Caligula emperor.
Suetonius writes how Caligula's guard Macro smothered him with a
pillow, but in reality Tiberius probably died a natural death.
Caligula was not Tiberius' only successor. The Emperor had made
his young grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, joint heir. Gemellus was
hardly an obstacle, and Caligula had him killed soon after
becoming Emperor. Caligula's grandmother Antonia committed
suicide around this time as well.
The first few months of Caligula's reign were good. He gave cash
bonuses to the Praetorian Guards, destroyed Tiberius' treason
papers, declared that treason trials were a thing of the past,
recalled exiles, and helped those who had been harmed by the
Imperial tax system. He was loved by many simply by being the
beloved son of Germanicus, the young military mascot they all
remembered. Plus, he was a descendant of Augustus, and therefore
related to Julius Caesar. He was also a great-grandson of Marc
And then he became ill.
Recent sources say that Caligula probably had encephalitis.
Ancient sources, like Suetonius and Cassius Dio, describe
Caligula having a "brain fever". Philo reports it was nothing
more than a nervous breakdown, as Caligula wasn't used to the
pressures of constant attention after being out of the public
eye for most of his life. Rome waited in horror, praying that
their beloved Emperor would recover. He became better, but his
reign took a sharp turn. The death of Gemellus and of Silanus,
Caligula's father-in-law, took place right after Caligula
Was Caligula really insane? Many would agree that he was, but
Philo of Alexandria, author of On the Embassy to Gaius doesn't
seem to think so. The leader of an Embassy sent to Caligula to
stop a giant statue from being erected on a cherished Jewish
landmark, Philo seems to think that Caligula was just a vicious
jokester. He was cruel, yes. But insane? Probably not. Philo is
one of the few ancient writers to have actually met Caligula.
There are famous stories that he tried to make his beloved
stallion, Incitatus, a senator. He probably meant this as a
joke. Other stories are of his incest with his sisters
(especially Drusilla), the orgy he held at the palace, his
campaign in Britain ending with his soldiers collecting
seashells as "spoils of the sea", his battle with the god
Neptune, wanting to erect a statue of himself in Jerusalem (his
good friend Herod Agrippa put a stop to that), calling himself a
"God", etc. The list goes on. Ancient sources label him as
downright insane, a tyrant. Modern sources attempt to explain
his insanity as the product of a messed up childhood or that he
was simply misunderstood. One thing is for certain. He was
extremely unqualified and unprepared to become Emperor.
He only ruled for three years and ten months. On January 24, 41
the latest conspiracy managed to end his life. While Caligula
was in a corridor alone he was struck down by one Cassius Chaera,
a man who had been with Germanicus' army long ago, and had
become fed up with Caligula for personal reasons (Caligula liked
to make fun of Cassius' voice). They also killed Caligula's wife
Caesonia and their infant daughter, Julia Drusilla by smashing
her head against a wall. After much confusion, as Caligula was
the first assassinated Emperor, old uncle Claudius was made
Emperor. Caligula was only 28 when he died.
All classical accounts of Gaius "Caligula" (12-41) agree that he
possessed elements of madness, cruelty, viciousness,
extravagance and megalomania. He is described as a coarse and
cruel despot with an extraordinary passion for sadism and a
fierce energy. He could get extremely excited and angry.
Caligula was tall, spindly, pale and prematurely bald. He was so
sensitive about his lack of hair that it was a capital crime for
anyone to look down from a high place as Caligula passed by.
Sometimes he ordered those with a fine head of hair to be
shaved. He made up for lack of hair on his head by an abundance
of body-hair. About this, too, he could be equally sensitive;
even the mention of "hairy goats" in conversation was dangerous.
He used to grimace, which he practised in front of a mirror, and
he was an impressive orator. An interesting detail is that his
real nature was only gradually revealed. His great-uncle, the
Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD), once said: "There was never a
better slave nor a worse master than Caligula."
Caligula was originally called Gaius. He grew up in a camp as a
favourite of his father's soldiers. The troops nicknamed him
"Caligula" after the child-size military boots he wore in camp.
From the Emperor Augustus he inherited ambition and sensuality
as well as the family affliction epilepsy. He was caught in bed
with his sister Drusilla before he came of age. His famous
father Germanicus (15 BC - 19 AD), his mother Agrippina the
elder (14 BC-33 AD) and all his brothers were either killed or
starved to death by order of the suspicious Emperor Tiberius and
his ambitious Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus. During his
adolescence, Caligula was a virtual prisoner of Tiberius. By
then Tiberius had largely withdrawn from active government and
retreated to the island of Capri, where Caligula kept him
company and tried to play the part of a dutiful and upright
young man. However, he could not fool Tiberius, who described
him as a 'serpent'. Capri was ideally situated as a fortress and
a refuge where Tiberius was free from fears of conspiracy and
assassination. According to the Roman historians Tacitus and
Suetonius, at Capri Tiberius felt at liberty to indulge in all
kinds of prolonged tortures and sexual perversities until he
fell ill in March AD 37 and subsequently collapsed into a coma.
The court officials thought he had died and began to
congratulate Caligula on his accession, when Tiberius awoke. It
is said that the Emperor was smothered with his bedclothes by
Caligula's chamberlain, Macro. Thus Caligula came to power.
[Caligula] In the first months Caligula's reign was mild and his
policies showed some political judgement. Even then, Caligula
took much pleasure in attending punishments and executions and
he preferred to have them prolonged. In May his grandmother
Antonia, who might have been a good influence, died. In October
Caligula fell seriously ill, and after his recovering Caligula
seems to have changed for the worse. In a few months he entirely
exhausted the treasury, which Tiberius had filled by years of
economizing. In 38, while having an affair with Macro's wife, he
accused Macro of being her pimp and ordered him to commit
suicide. Tiberius' grandson and heir, Tiberius Gemellus, once
drank a cough medicine that Caligula mistook for an antidote to
poison. When accused, the youth replied: "Antidote - how can one
take an antidote against Caesar?" Soon afterwards Tiberius
Gemellus was murdered. It became a capital crime not to bequeath
the Emperor everything. In 39 Caligula revived Tiberius' treason
trials. People suspected of disloyalty were executed or driven
to suicide. A supervisor of games and beast-fights was flogged
with chains before Caligula for days on end, and was not put to
dead until Caligula was offended by the smell of the gangrene in
his brain. On one occasion, when there weren't enough condemned
criminals to fight the tigers and lions in the arena, Caligula
ordered some spectators to be dragged from the benches into the
arena. Another time, Caligula decided to proclaim his mastery of
the sea by building a three mile long bridge of boats across the
Bay of Naples. He crossed them on horseback, wearing the
breastplate of Alexander the Great. Thus he claimed that, like
the god Neptune, he had ridden across the waters. He gave his
horse, Incitatus, jewelled necklaces, a marble stable with
furniture and a staff of servants to itself and made it a priest
of his temple and even proposed to make it a senator. Caligula
loved dressing up and used to dress in rich silk, ornamented
with precious stones and he wore jewels on his shoes. Pearls
were dissolved in vinegar, which he then drank, and he liked to
roll on heaps of gold. Like his nephew, Nero (37 AD-68 AD),
Caligula appeared as athlete, charioteer, singer and dancer. To
increase his revenues Caligula introduced all possible forms of
taxation and rich people who had involuntary willed him their
estates were murdered. Once, when a supposedly rich man had
finally died, but turned out to have left no money, Caligula
commented: "Oh dear, he died in vain." Caligula even opened a
brothel in his palace where Roman matrons, their daughters and
freeborn youths could be hired for money.
Caligula was irresistibly attracted by every pretty young woman
whom he did not possess. He even committed incest with his own
three sisters. He would carefully examine women of rank in Rome
and whenever he felt so inclined, he would send for whoever
pleased him best. He debauched them and left them like fruit he
had tasted and thrown away. Afterwards, he would openly discuss
his bedfellow in detail. His first wife, Julia Claudilla, died
young. In the first year of his reign Caligula attended a
wedding and ran off with the bride, Livia Orestilla, whom he
divorced after a few days. He soon tired of his rich third wife,
Lollia Paulina, too. He made the older Milonia Caesonia (±5-41)
his fourth wife in 38, when she was already pregnant. The
sensual and immoral Caesonia was an excellent match for him.
Caesonia gave birth to a daughter, Julia Drusilla, whom Caligula
considered his own child, because "she was so savage even in
childhood that she used to attack with her nails the faces and
eyes of the children who played with her". Whenever Caligula
kissed the neck of his wife or mistress, he used to say: "This
lovely neck will be chopped as soon as I say so". [Agrippina the
younger] In addition, Caligula had sexual relations with men
like the pantomime actor Mnester, Valerius Catullus and Marcus
Aemilius Lepidus. Lepidus was married to Caligula's favourite
sister Drusilla and also engaged in affairs with Caligula's
other sisters. Meanwhile, Caligula forced Drusilla to live with
him as his wife, following the practice of the Egyptian
pharaohs. It was said that when Drusilla became pregnant,
Caligula couldn't wait for the birth of their god-like child and
disembowelled her to pluck the unborn baby from her womb. True
or not, Drusilla died and Caligula had her deified. The next
year Caligula had Marcus Aemilius Lepidus murdered. In addition,
he had his sisters Livilla and Agrippina the younger (to the
right), Nero's mother, exiled to an island and confiscated their
Caligula demanded that he be worshipped as a god. Caligula's
self-indulgence in his supposed divinity deteriorated his insane
behaviour. He was convinced that he was entitled to behave like
a god. Thus, he set up a special temple with a life-sized statue
of himself in gold, which was dressed each day in clothing such
as he wore himself. As a sun god he courted the moon. He claimed
fellowship with the gods as his equals, identifying himself in
particular with Jupiter, but also with female gods like Juno,
Diana or Venus. Standing near the image of Jupiter, Caligula
once asked the actor Apelles whether Jupiter or Caligula were
greater. When Apelles hesitated, Caligula had him cut to pieces
with the whip, praising his voice as he pled for mercy,
remarking on the melodiousness of his groans. He justified
himself by saying: "Remember that I have the power to do
anything to anyone."
Caligula's behaviour, a splitting of emotions and thoughts, is
nowadays diagnosed as schizophrenia. The absolute power that
Caligula enjoyed strengthened and developed the worst features
of his character. His grandmother, Antonia, and his favourite
sister, Drusilla, who could both have had a restraining
influence on him, died during the first year of his reign. In
his youth - as a favourite of the soldiers - he must have been
thoroughly spoilt. The near-extinction of his family and the
subsequent fear for his own life during his adolescent years
will surely have marked his personality. However, Caligula's
madness could have been organically influenced, because it was
said to have become apparent after a serious illness which he
had suffered in October 37. [Caligula] If this disease was
encephalitis, then it could very likely have been a contributory
factor to the bizarre features of his behaviour, for
encephalitis can cause a marked character change and give rise
to impulsive, aggressive and intemperate activity, similar in
its symptoms to those of schizophrenia. In addition, Caligula
had inherited epilepsy. Some forms of epilepsy have symptoms
similar to those of both schizophrenia and the post-encephalitic
syndrome. At times, because of sudden faintness, Caligula was
sometimes hardly able to move his limbs, to stand up, to collect
his thoughts or to hold up his head. He suffered severely from
sleeplessness, never sleeping for more than three hours a night
and even for that length of time he did not sleep quietly; he
was terrified by strange manifestations.
After a 4-year-reign the Praetorians stabbed Caligula to death
when he left the theatre. His fourth wife was stabbed to death
too, while their infant daughter's head was smashed against a
wall. One of the conspirators was Cornelius Sabinus, whose wife
had been debauched and publicly humiliated by Caligula. Another
conspirator was Cassius Chaerea, who hated Caligula, because he
had remorselessly imitated his high, effiminate voice. Suetonius
wrote that Caligula's reign of terror had been so severe that
the Romans refused to believe that he was actually dead.
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This web page was last updated on:
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